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Free college comes with unexpected consequences

“Free tuition” programs like the one Maryland lawmakers approved this week are gaining national momentum, but many of the statewide initiatives are still too new for experts to say how they will turn out in the long run. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun video)

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen projects that 50% of U.S. colleges will go bankrupt or close over the next 10 years. The primary reason is a broken business model that is financially unsustainable. Complicating the problem is a downturn in the number of traditional-age college students with an unprecedented drop by 2026.

There are more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States competing for a shrinking pool of college students.The state of Oregon began an experiment with free tuition at community colleges in 2016. The community colleges benefited by increased enrollment, but public four-year universities have experienced an enrollment decline. In addition, the number of first-generation and low-income students participating in the Oregon program was lower than expected.

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I do agree with Sandra Kurtinitis (“Cost-free college is an investment in communities,” May 24) that “free tuition” should have a profound effect on college affordability for many lower-to-middle-income students and families. However, there are likely to be serious consequences for public and private four-year universities that are already challenged by the shrinking pool of traditional-age college students.

Education is a top priority for our elected officials in Maryland. Our leaders should proceed with great care on “free college” to preserve the state’s enormous financial investment.

Jan Moylan Wagner, Owings Mills

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